Language as the idiom of violence

By Patricia Mukhim

I have been thinking a lot about the kind of language that some in Khasi society use at particular junctures of our history. Sadly, we don’t pay attention to the etymology of the words and phrases that have the potential to inflame passions and ignite emotions. When those emotions play in our minds they tend to create hatred; We need to construct the ‘other’ because we believe our own people can do no wrong. We then pile on to the ‘other’ all the reasons for our economic failures. It is easier and convenient to blame the ‘other’ than to introspect on our own failures to follow the path of economic progress through sheer hard work and sacrifice and political sagacity. Because of our defensiveness to deep dive into how these pejorative words and phrases were coined and with what intent they were constructed and when, we continue to use them to suit our whims.
Assigning power
to language
Violence is almost always foregrounded by language. Someone gives an impassioned speech pointing fingers at someone for being the reason for all the wrongs in society and lo and behold we have hotheads ready to attack anyone that comes their way. This has been the modus operandi in Shillong. Anthropologists say that violence is embedded in language. If we have followed the trends for violence in Shillong they seem to rely on and accompany a certain discourse. On October 28, the discourse of a certain pressure group was ‘unemployment.’ So where was the need to attack the non-tribals passing by? How does a non-tribal become the cause for unemployment? But the verbal framing of the discourse started at the beginning of the procession and only gained momentum as the rally wended its way through Police Bazar – Dhankheti until Fire Brigade ground.
Anthropologists also say that aggression is biological while violence is social. Mary Louise Pratt an expert in linguistics says, very often the accompanying language gives violence its social meaning and social character. Normally we tend to believe that violence begins when dialogue stops. But has there ever been a dialogue between tribals and non-tribals in Meghalaya to sort out the reasons for the embedded hatred that one has for the other? While relationships on the surface look smooth, it takes a small incident to bring out the worst traits of that embedded hatred to the surface.
Social media is the measuring rod for the language of violence against the other. A Facebooker with a locked profile says that it was correct to bring all festivals to an abrupt end since 5 people were killed at the border by the “other” (doesn’t matter which group). The argument goes…”why should we allow the ‘poi-ei’ to enjoy in our state while our people are killed at the borders. The word poi-ei is a pejorative idiom in the Khasi language. Literally it means one who has arrived out of nowhere – a migrant who has no resources of his own and is waiting to exploit someone else – namely the Khasis. Figuratively it means an unwanted person. The Khasi-Jaintia people have a strong claim to his land as being that of our foremothers (ancestresses). That’s because we rely too heavily on our origin myths. History and anthropology tell us that Khasis are an Austro-Asiatic race having migrated from Cambodia. At some point therefore these hills we claim we have originated from were empty spaces until the Khasi-Jaintia people and others came to settle here. And since we were the first settlers we are called ‘indigenous.’ As has happened in our neighbouring state of Assam, the Bodos were the first settlers. Later came the Ahoms, Mikirs, Dimasas, etc. But the Bodos have never called them “poi-ei.” They have become citizens of Assam and their loyalty to the state has not been called to question.
In the case of the Khasi-Jaintia people colonisation also brought in Bengalis, Marwaris and a host of other settlers who have added value to the state and enriched the syncretic culture of Meghalaya. To term such permanent residents of the State as ‘poi-ei’ is patently unfair.
Khasi litterateurs and linguists in Universities should analyse these pejorative or what some anthropologists call the “fighting words,” which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. These fighting words or words intended to hurt have been stoically borne by the non-tribal residents of Shillong. They fear that raising a storm might get them into deeper trouble. Now there are some politicians who cash in on this. During elections they go to these non-tribal localities and seek votes with the promise of offering them protection. The question is – protection from whom? Who are the aggressors? Ironically this is also laced with an underlying threat that if the non-tribals don’t vote for the politician then he will not be responsible for their safety and security. It doesn’t take much to read between the lines and figure out the larger design of the politician. But people have voted them out of fear. They say a politician like that is better inside the Assembly than outside.
Racial epithets are common in every language but with time we try and temper them down because we humans have to learn to co-exist. No state is an island that can survive on its own resources. We in Meghalaya have seen how just a single day of petrol unions calling off work had affected our supply of fuel. Thankfully, this was amicably resolved. Those petrol union workers too are poi-ei. But if they refuse to enter your state you are devastated.
It’s time therefore to halt the use of racial epithets which cause emotional “scarring.” It’s also time for linguistic and legal scholars to have a debate around the status of malicious interpellations and their power to cause harm. Linguists say that language is thought of from the point of view of the speaker. Hence it depends on the hearer to whom the words are addressed whether he/she allows those words to cause pain. Linguistic philosopher and poet Denise Riley believes that making language impersonal diminishes its ability to harm. But how does one do that and what intellectual or spiritual plane must a person reach to not let words harm and injure? That’s a tough call because we are all creatures of emotions and we have our self- respect and dignity no matter what our social and economic statuses.
When trying to grasp the ability of language to wound, to destroy, and to harm, Riley emphasizes the absolute importance of something that linguists have never figured out what to do with, which is the reality of inner speech. Inner speech is what goes on inside the person’s head. This inner speech, Riley argues, is the carrier of linguistic injury. She states from long years of research that injurious speech echoes relentlessly, years after it was uttered in the mind of the one at whom it was aimed. If these words are repeated over time they can in-grow and embed themselves in the hearer until the message no longer feels as if it comes from the outside. Those embedded words are then internalised and can cause mental discomfort leading to mental health problems.
To label even tourists that visit Meghalaya and spend their hard-earned money here as “poi-ei” is despicable. The fact that tourists spend their earnings here has enabled individuals to keep their home fires burning. There are many families that are dependent on tourism for their livelihoods even while others provide ancillary services. Those who use such degrading and fighting words have to be held responsible for the very issue of unemployment. Period!